Woodchip heaven – organic material for the garden

A glorious pile of chipped forest!

I just scored a truckload of chipped branches from a road crew trimming the area around the phone and power lines on our road.

They were happy not to have to cart it back to Halifax, where the truck was headed, so I suppose I saved the contractor a bit of money in diesel.

But I feel like the real winner. I was thrilled to get this much steaming organic matter, a nice mix of “browns and greens” (branches and leaves) which avid composters know to be the ingredients of the slow fire in the middle of a compost heap that produces all that nice gardener’s gold that makes gardens grow.

I’m spreading it over future garden beds. First, I covered the sod with overlapping layers of corrugated cardboard (from behind a grocery store) to smother grass and weeds. Under the cardboard are oak leaves that someone was throwing away. (More free organic matter!) The woodchips go on top of the cardboard in a thick layer. Later I’ll add some manure (which I’ll have to pay for).

In a year or two, the beds will be ready for annual vegetables. The soil will be deeper and contain more organic matter, which it sorely needs. I get out of breaking sod, which is the physically hardest part of gardening. The worms will do the work for me.

Spreading woodchips on future garden beds.

The soil here is sandy and poor – not like the rich drumlin soil of the LaHave River Valley nearby. It needs lots of organic material to become productive for gardening.

Fortunately, Nova Scotia is a leader in “waste” management. Even if I had not intercepted this truckload of material which is so valuable to me, it would have been composted, not buried in a landfill.

The potatoes are planted

garden partly planted
4 rows of potatoes in the foreground half of the garden

The Victoria Day weekend is coming up, traditionally the time you can expect it to be safe to get your garden planted – though I wouldn’t put out the tomatoes just yet.  But the potatoes are now happily buried in the new part of my growing vegetable garden.

This area of so-called lawn (“so-called” because there was no grass growing there, only weeds and wild strawberries) was forest a decade ago. The previous owner cleared it and apparently got gypped on the topsoil – there isn’t any, really. A lot of rocks, though. Last year I covered another section with seaweed, manure, about 10 layers of newspaper and 2 layers of black plastic, held down with big rocks dug up in the older part of the garden. This year I removed the plastic and rototilled it with my grandfather’s old tiller, picking out rocks as I went. Lots of rocks. They made the tiller kick like a wild horse. I’m still recovering.

I don’t expect a lot from this new section of the garden this year. I’ve put in potatoes and will add bush beans between the rows when it warms up, as they are good companion plants for potatoes.  All the digging and redigging, and the opportunities to remove more stones, will get the soil in better shape for future years.

Here is the tool I desire: the Lee Valley rock rake. (I wish they had an affiliate program so I could make enough money from that link to buy one!)

Pioneer garden

The deer netting is practically invisible so I've run flagging tape around it so the deer will know that something is there.
The deer netting is practically invisible so I've run three levels of flagging tape around it so the deer will know that something is there.

My deer fence looks like a carnival, the thin mesh festooned with orange and yellow flagging tape. What’s inside is not terribly tempting to deer, not yet anyway. It may not be big news for hungry humans either. The potatoes should do OK, and I hope to get some beans – especially if we get a bit of heat around here. But when your broccoli matures early with heads the size of a loonie, you know the plants are feeling stressed.  They somehow know that under these conditions, they’d better reproduce while they can.

This broccoli plant has given up already. It doesn't think it'll grow big enough to support a floret larger than a loonie.
This broccoli plant has given up already. It doesn't think it'll grow big enough to support a floret larger than a loonie.

How many pioneers tried to feed their families out of soil no better than this?  Recently forested, no topsoil brought in, rocky, no manure integrated into the dirt yet – not  much  good for anything but potatoes.

It takes time to build up soil like this – plus compost, manure and other organic matter.  My ambition is to enlarge the garden with time.  Newspaper and black plastic are smothering the weeds in future sections of garden.

I’m sure glad I can BUY my groceries!

Update on the deer fence, July 3, 2010

Will the deer fence hold?

Thin, almost invisible netting separates my garden from this deer.
Thin netting separates my garden from this deer.

I’m determined to develop a garden on this corner of our property. Grass won’t even grow there, just weeds and wild strawberries. Over the 5 years that we’ve lived here, I’ve cleared a 15’x15′ patch and tried growing things like beans, potatoes and broccoli. But deer, and maybe rabbits, have munched whatever managed to grow – even potato plants, which surprised me as potato leaves are rather toxic.

This year, however, the recession and the spike in oil prices last year have got many of us thinking more about growing our own food. So I’m getting more serious with the garden. It’s time to learn to grow food!

The soil is terribly poor. Over the years, I’ve added a bit of seaweed and compost, but finally this year I paid for a load of manure. That was the first firm step of commitment.

The second step: a fence. But I needed to do it cheaply, using mostly materials at hand.

The only thing I actually had to buy was 100 ft of 7′ high “deer fence” – black plastic netting – from Lee Valley for about $27 plus shipping. For the support posts, I had some 8-foot lengths of old aluminum tubing from a shed structure which had collapsed in a winter storm some years ago, and some leftover copper pipe which happened to fit just inside the aluminum tubes.

To erect the support posts, I pounded 4′ lengths of the copper tubing halfway into the ground with a sledge hammer, then used a plumber’s pipe-cutting tool to cut off the top bit that had got mashed by the force of the sledge. The aluminum tubing slid over the copper and another foot or so into the ground. Hopefully it will be strong enough at the level of the ground to withstand bending forces. In fact, I haven’t had to run guy lines or construct inside props to support my fence posts.

Then I attached the deer netting to the posts, which have boltholes at the top and halfway down, with plastic ties. I cut pegs from twigs and hammered them through the netting into the ground to keep the rabbits out, although there are a few gaps which concern me where the netting doesn’t reach the ground.

The black netting is practically invisible from a distance, so I’ve run plastic flagging tape around the perimeter halfway up for the deer to see. Deer can jump up to seven feet high, so I need to finish the job by running more tape all the way around the top. Another thing to buy.

So far so good. But with the weather we’ve had, the garden is growing slowly, so the temptation may not yet be very great. The wild strawberries are much more interesting to grazers (me included). Stay tuned.  [Update on the deer fence, July 3, 2010]